Friday, January 28, 2011

The joys and frustrations of motherhood

So, you spend a great proportion of your life single, childhood (hopefully secure, joyous and generally sentimentally lovely) followed by irresponsible youth. Probably lots of fun, too much drinking, talking to strangers in bars, dancing and falling down. Then at some stage in your life you decide or accidentally have kids and suddenly you become this harried individual....
Of course I remember that I was once a child but I am not naturally a patient individual and so the endless demands of children can be quite a trial, especially when my 5 year old shouts loudly from the toilet ‘Finished’, which means that she wants me to wipe her bum after she’s finished her ‘poo’. We’re breaking this habit now that she is at school because she has the co-ordination to be able to wipe her own bum and her arms are long enough to reach...I still feel guilty sometimes though when she’s dressed in some elaborate puffy frock and she can’t co-ordinate her petticoat with the toilet bowl and the toilet paper all at the same time and she’s been shouting for 3 minutes and I’ve been ignoring her and when I arrive she is a flurry of petticoat and toilet paper and trying desperately not to get her dress wet...
Anyway, my children like to play when they’re sent upstairs to brush their teeth in the morning. This is fair enough because they’re kids after all. Playing dinosaurs or farms or battles is far more fun than brushing teeth. Nevertheless, I still would like them to keep to the ten minute deadline so that they can be ready to be picked up to get to school on time....
This morning, they spent 15 minutes ‘brushing their teeth’ until I arrived to be told that they hadn’t even started yet. The lift was about to arrive to take them to school and my daughter still needed to have her hair plaited (5 year old skills do not stretch to plaiting yet) I got a bit cross. I plaited daughter’s hair whilst my son tidied away the toys from the morning play. Some toys are designed for maximum childhood pleasure and maximum parent annoyance, three such toys are Mr. Potato Head, Lego and Playmobil because they have lots and lots of teeny tiny pieces that the children like to get out and leave stranded around the house for adult feet to stub painfully on or for the Hoover to loudly suck up. I have managed to artfully ‘lose’ Mr. Potato head in a recent house move, but I do enjoy the other two toys almost as much as the children (apart from the tidying up). This morning, the culprit was Playmobil, but my son is pretty good at understanding deadlines and lateness, so he scrabbled up all the teeny tiny pieces super quickly. Thankfully managed to get them all ready in the nick of time with only a few cross words from me.
I breathed a sigh of relief when they were off to school, leaving me to tidy the kitchen and find two little play figures left on the kitchen counter...a playmobile man embracing a giraffe...and they reminded me that in amongst feeling harried and busy and tired by children and Lego and Playmobil, we are also constantly delighted by their innocence and joy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

This book seems to be infused throughout with a plaintive sadness. Now that may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not really because you have to admire an author who can evoke a sentiment consistently without making the reader feel totally depressed! It’s a novel about love and loss, childhood and old age. Some aspects of the plot towards the end are slightly convoluted and contrived but I forgave the author because of the quality of the characterisation. I loved both narrative voices so much by the end that I didn’t mind that Krauss was seemingly making me leap through hoops of belief in order that they could eventually meet.
There are elements of magic in the book and a preoccupation with death which is almost inevitable when the two main characters are a Jewish man who escaped from the Nazis, leaving his friends behind and a girl whose father has died. These themes lead inevitably to the book being infused with sadness. Nonetheless, it deals with sadness well, and with grief in a manner that balances sentiment with style.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Plumber

I liked the plumber; he was a chubby, avuncular man, almost like a fully grown baby with those pinchable chubby cheeks. The neat, greying beard kind of limited the baby comparison but he was still a lovely man. He had been to the house a few times before to help us out with minor plumbing questions. The reason we used him was because he had done all the plumbing when the house was built, he was familiar with the layout of the pipes and the idiosyncrasies of the house.
Despite this familiarity with the house and its plumbing and increasingly me and the husband and the two noisy kids, he was consistently polite. He always asked permission to enter the bathrooms or go up the stairs, even if we were cooking dinner or berating the children for their noise and chaos. He always checked that we were ok with him wandering around; he was old school chivalrous that way.
The last time he visited, the husband was at work and the kids at school. The plumber had been checking all the taps in the house because the water pressure had been down. He´d adjusted the water pump and now, with his usual thoroughness, he was checking the water flow upstairs and down, making sure the whole house was ok, conscientious and chivalrous. He was a great workman, so I was really quite sad about what happened.
The upstairs bathroom, primarily used by my children, had its door closed. The plumber, with his usual politeness, asked if he could go in. I said of course, but to watch out for the monsters that were sometimes left in there by the children.
He laughed as he opened the door and then his head was bitten off by the monster inside.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Three Kings

On the 6th of January every year, the three kings, or three wise men, arrive in Spain. Evidently, predicting the birth of Jesus and travelling across the world following a star to find him was not enough of a task, they have to spend the next couple of thousand years on another mission.
Their mission is twofold; their primary purpose is to ensure that gifts are delivered to children across Spain. My Spanish teacher assures me (and I don’t think she’s doing the ‘let’s tell the foreigner a complete lie and see if she’s gullible enough to believe it' trick) that the three kings deliver their gifts to the balcony of the house. This, of course, is a perfect explanation why the three kings do not bother visiting Britain, because in the main, people don’t have balconies in Britain. Anyway, In order to know that they need to leave gifts for children on the balconies, the children need to leave their shoes outside...yes, I know, it all seems a bit bizarre to me too, but it’s a tradition and the kids love it! As with Santa, we also have to leave drinks for the three kings. My son decided to leave lemonade, a beer and an amaretto (with a few hints from his happy parents).
The second part of the mission is for the three kings to manifest themselves, in the form of men from the local towns and villages, dressed up in suitable kingly attire, with lots of other adults who should know better, also dressed up as shepherds, stars, kings and sheep. They then need to find some lorries and tractors, dress the floats, find as many boiled sweets and chocolates as they can and participate in a parade.
Most towns and villages in Spain have a three kings’ parade which travels its way through the town, towards the local church. After a church service, the kings will distribute gifts to the children of the village.
This year, we decided to attend the procession in Campello, our local beach town. We were told that Campello would be a small parade and that the kings would arrive by boat!! So, we dutifully trekked down for 5 pm, after finding out that the kings would be arriving at 5.30. They did arrive , by boat, one at a time. Our kids were quite excited to see three men dressed in bizarre costumes arrive by boat although the appeal was limited for adults, especially as we had to wait ten minutes between each king. Nonetheless, the people of Campello had organised an exciting enough arrival, with great fireworks heralding each king.
There were lots of people and children around and I suppose this is one of the great things about Spain, the whole procession is based around children. Never mind that many Spanish people have now adopted December 25th as a celebratory date, with gifts and food etc. No, what matters is that the children are able to enjoy the 5th of January as a date when the three kings arrive and the 6th January as the date when they will receive more gifts!!
After the arrival of the kings, we walked towards the procession and that’s when things became decidedly Spanish because nothing moved for ages and ages. We kept getting excited because stars and shepherds and donkeys (real ones, not dressed up!) moved a bit, but they were just shuffling forwards.
I suppose this is the time when the three kings get a bit tired, after star searching two thousand years ago and trekking to find Jesus, I suppose it’s a bit tiring to be dressed up on a carnival float and have to travel through towns across Spain.
Eventually, things moved along...but, to the horror of my children, the people on the floats were not throwing their sweets...this was what we had been promised, lots of sweetie throwing and gathering by children. Sure enough, there were well equipped Spanish children all along the route, holding their plastic bags ready to catch and collect and gather the sweets (nobody had told us to bring plastic bags, so we just had pockets!!)
My children were mortified, no sweets!! The Spanish people around us were also puzzled and started to hector the shepherds and variously dressed adults as to why they weren’t throwing sweets. They were told that the sweet throwing occurred further up the road. The Spanish people pointed out that there were children waiting along this part of the route and would it make any difference where the sweets were thrown? Evidently there had been some sort of three kings’ mandate, so no sweets were thrown where we were! We did see some great fire juggling and stilt walkers and fire breathing, but this was not good enough for my daughter...she wanted the sweets! We did the wise thing; we walked along the route to where the sweets would be distributed!
By this time, we had two tired children and a tired grandma in tow too. We walked a couple of hundred yards through much busier crowds and eventually saw some floats ahead who were passing down advent calendars. There was a scramble but we managed to get one for my son. My daughter was lifted up to reach an advent calendar but refused it...she’s quite a stubborn thing and she had been promised sweeties, and that is what she wanted. Thankfully, the shepherds in question had some and gave her a handful!
We were relieved to finally be able to leave, with the promised sweets. We had to wait for the remainder of the procession to pass before crossing the road. The last tractor pulled float travelled towards us. It seemed that the procession had finally overcome the stop start stuttering progress of earlier and now the floats were in full flow. It was dark and getting a bit colder and some fireworks were set off again on Campello beach, within easy view. And that’s when our magical three kings’ moment happened. The last float had the three kings on it. They didn’t care where they threw sweets, they knew their mandate...please the children.
My 7 year old and 4 year old looked up in awe at three strange men dressed in kingly costumes with bad false beards...their faces lit up as they realised that the three kings were throwing them. There was an excited scramble around the pavement and the road, amidst plenty of laughter and jostling children and some scuttling adults too. And then, wonder of wonders, more sweets, up in the air, glinting with concealed magic as they caught the lights of the fireworks on the way to the ground. More scrambling and clutching for treasure, more laughter. My daughter was beaten to a final sweet by an older boy who was then chastised back by his mother to give the sweetie to my daughter! She took it! By this time the children were rosy cheeked with excitement with hands and pockets brimming full with sweeties.
And then the float had gone, leaving us with pockets full of sweets, two delighted children and three adults who had just seen some magic happen.
They were just some sweets after all; many are boiled sweets still in their complimentary bank wrappers... now they look kind of ordinary, in a little bowl in our kitchen, being slowly distributed day by day. They still have a little magic in them though and we will certainly be venturing out to the procession next year...we know where we need to stand now to get the sweets. And next year we’ll take plastic bags.